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As Fourth of July weekend 2015 approached, the outlook at the East Valley Animal Shelter was grim. As it does at many shelters around the country, the holiday typically brings a spike in intakes when pets frightened by fireworks escape from their homes. Staff expected about 60 dogs to enter the Los Angeles city shelter in one day, which meant they would have to euthanize dogs to make space like in previous years.
"A lot of the volunteers were just—I don’t know the right word—devastated? That seems even too light,” says JD Disalvatore, a professional film producer who volunteers her photography and videography skills for the shelter.
But then some creative thinking changed everything. Driving home a few days before the holiday, Veronica Perry, the shelter’s New Hope program and foster coordinator, was thinking about how she’s endured eight years of the predicament. Many volunteers and community members become upset whenever a high-intake period like July Fourth drives a spike in euthanasia. Perry decided to recruit the public to be part of the solution.
She sent out a plea for people willing to foster an animal for just four days. She enlisted Disalvatore to make a video, and the response was a testament to the power of social media. In time for the holiday rush, the shelter moved all of its 64 foster-eligible dogs out of the shelter, through fosters, adoptions or rescues. Over the weekend, 264 animals came into the shelter, but no dogs had to be euthanized because of the extra space that was made through all the fosters. Since then, the shelter’s foster program has flourished.
Previously, the foster program wasn’t advertised and didn’t have many participants, but now Perry has 100 applications on her desk at any given time, she says. Generally, the shelter asks people to foster until the dog gets adopted, but a four-day commitment provided enough time for dogs spooked by fireworks to be reclaimed and for space in the shelter to open up again.
“What the East Valley Animal Shelter did was just the kind of out-of-the-box, innovative thinking that high-intake shelters need,” says Leigh O’Bryan, HSUS grassroots outreach manager in Los Angeles. Perry credits Disalvatore’s video with much of the program’s success. It was posted on Facebook on July 2 and promoted through the social media hashtag #4Days4Life.
After the opening chords of Supertramp’s “Give a Little Bit,” the video’s narration explains the July Fourth shelter space predicament with accompanying footage of the shelter dogs with paws up on the kennel doors, tongues out and licking people’s hands (creating enough “awww” moments to make people want to take them home).
On the Friends of East Valley Animal Services’ Facebook page—which has fewer than 8,000 followers—the video garnered more than 15,000 views and 840 shares.
On July 3, there was a line of people standing outside the shelter. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, my co-workers are going to kill me,’” says Perry. “Because … we really weren’t prepared or staffed for it.”
But all of her co-workers were happy to be getting dogs out, and so were the volunteers and people who came to foster. Disalvatore interviewed them for a second video, and by July 7, that video had more than 130,000 views and 4,000 shares.
That weekend, the shelter ran out of dogs to foster, even pit-bull-types, which had never happened in Perry’s time working there. She suspects it’s never happened in the history of Los Angeles Animal Services.
“Too many times in animal shelters and the shelter system, people still haven’t gotten rid of that dog catcher, animal pound, gas chamber [stereotype], and it’s easier for people to just walk away from the shelter and not deal with it … than try to go and help,” Perry says. “So when you give them something that’s positive and say, ‘Look, this is awesome! Come to the shelter and do this,’ … then they can walk away from it feeling good.”
People came from as far as 60 miles away to help, and one couple even got their landlord to lift a ban on pets for the weekend so they could foster a dog, recalls Disalvatore.
Although the four-day commitment helped generate interest, some foster caregivers kept their dogs for longer or decided to adopt them. Other dogs found homes after the shelter posted updates from their temporary caregivers on Facebook, along with descriptions of their personalities outside the shelter and photos of them snuggling in beds, getting walked or making feline friends.
In addition to saving a lot of lives, the #4Days4Life effort raised awareness about the foster program and the challenges the shelter faces. Perry plans to do it again this Fourth of July and is working to implement it in all Los Angeles city shelters for Independence Day and other holidays when intake skyrockets.
“It was sharing that got all these dogs out,” says Disalvatore. “It’s not so much, ‘You guys did this clever thing and got all these dogs out,’ but really the heroes are the people on social media who decided to share this. Because if you can reach 200,000 people, sure, you’ll get 100 to come in and foster.”
From 2014-2016, each of the six city shelters in Los Angeles took in over 1,000 animals from July 2-6. In 2018, City of Los Angeles Animal Services is once again seeking volunteer foster families to help with the July Fourth holiday influx of dogs and cats. For more information, go to LAAnimalServices.com/foster.
For more information about Disalvatore’s videos to help shelter animals, go to howtosaveadog.com.